I’m always happy to share reflections on poetry by guest bloggers—poets whose work I respect and admire. I’m especially happy to post this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by my dear friend and colleague Michael T. Young.
Michael’s third and most recent poetry collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press), received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. His other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost (Poets Wear Prada), Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), and Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press). He received a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Arts Council, as well as the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous print and online journals including The Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Edison Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, The Potomac Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His work also appears in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. Michael lives with his wife, Chandra, and their children, Ariel and Malia, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Breaking the Silence
Adrienne Rich said, “Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.” The silence that surrounds a poem—its creation, publication—is intimidating, sometimes disheartening. The long struggle for the right word is not simply a game; it is a confrontation with the limits of a poet’s understanding, even the poet’s perception. Writing a poem is a feeling in the dark for the light switch. It can be agonizing. The work pulls us in the gut to get it right; it tugs at the viscera to be honest, because words can cloud as easily as disclose. Intention and determination are as vital as talent, perhaps more so, because the greatest talents determined to dodge and duck behind words will leave in their wake nothing but halls of mirrors for their readers.
Writing a poem is not just about being honest about one’s personal life; it is about being honest about anything. It is about fighting the very human tendency only to see what conforms to our existing opinion, or shaping the lines to guide others only to understand in the way we acknowledge as right, picking words to narrow rather than expand the view. These are nuances, subtleties, shifts in tone or diction that may escape readers—or writers—who are not looking for them or comparing in their mind the given with other, unnamed options. To struggle and wrestle and fight with oneself for days, for weeks, sometimes for months or years to get that word, that line, that image right in spite of oneself, to then struggle and wrestle and fight to get it into print to be met with the sound of silence, can make that battle feel like a defeat. But it isn’t; the poem on the page is a triumph, the essay on the page is a success. Those words on the page knock against each other and make the right music, the right pitch and cadence. They open up what was inside you, they disclose a clarity that was once hidden.
Poets live with the knowledge that clarity is not a given; it is a battle, a willed victory over obscurity. Obscurity, ambiguity, and mystery are the norm, whether it’s in the shape of feelings buried in cliché, an insight stuffed into pedestrian language, or an unusual idea wearing a threadbare metaphor. These are the halls of everyday life. It’s not that every moment must be lived as an epiphany. Just as living in a perpetual state of emergency would lead to a nervous breakdown, so too would a state of perpetual epiphany destroy the psyche. But when the moment, the feeling, or the thought is something more than the language we’ve known, then it requires work, not only to share it with others, but to clarify it to one’s own mind. Without that effort, it will vanish into the vagueness of the given, the known. The unique is almost impossibly difficult. Like a curmudgeon, it will accept nothing but its own terms. If we dress it in yesterday’s clothing, it leaves us for a better party, a better mind.
Another consequence of our daily linguistic vagueness is that real understanding between people is quite rare. For the most part, we move along in a drift of suggestion and approximation, going in the same direction but most often not in the same raft. True understanding takes a great determination on the part of both the speaker and the listener (or the writer and the reader). So where two minds meet in that invisible space created by what becomes a common language between them, where the words chiming in one head manage to reach and orchestrate the pitch and timing of thought and feeling in the head of another—that space is a consequence of great effort from both directions. It is neither natural nor common, but quite unnatural and rare. When it happens, this uniting power and beauty in language is a kind of magic. For the understanding it conjures can take place across time and space, as when I read Gerard Manley Hopkins and, in that moment, my mind locked in to the beauty and power of his words, they create a space in my mind where he lives again while, simultaneously, my humanity is enriched and deepened by the precision and textures of his writing. Whether it pierces the mind’s eye
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Or it warns us:
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve and hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
In each instance, the poetry gathers us around it like a fire to be warmed and given light. This is the power poetry has against what tries to divide us. That power starts with breaking the silence in oneself.
Lucile Clifton has a poem called “Memory” in which she traces the disparity between a daughter’s recollection and a mother’s recollection of the same event. The shared event is going out to purchase the young girl’s first adult shoes. The daughter recalls the salesman’s bigotry, his bullying and swagger. But the speaker says her mother “tells it better than I do.” The mother insists there was no bullying, bigoted, white salesman who shamed them. Her desperate desire to make a good memory out of a bad situation pushes her to create a fantasy. The speaker in holding to the truth becomes the adult. But the denial of history inherent in the mother’s false version becomes a division between mother and daughter in the context of a racist society. This is the pain that word “better” carries. This is the trauma locked inside the repetition in the poem of “ask me/how it feels.” The poem is a version of how we break silence, how we give voice by facing down the shadows that would intimidate us into accepting things as they are, or worse, creating fantasies in denial of it.
Shelley famously said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I would suggest they are a kind of unacknowledged soldier. The silences in ourselves, those that arise as part of the cultural expectations we internalize and express as an aesthetic are as much a form of censorship as any other. In fact, these are more efficient and effective than political censorship. To turn against those silences takes courage and determination. A poet willing to ask, “What voices are being silenced in my writing that must be heard?” is questioning the very assumptions that make their identity. But in the end, that battle to give voice to the silences within expands both the poet’s humanity and vision, and in the poem becomes a way for readers to experience the same.